There is so much literature and so many differing opinions on onboarding. There also seems to be some confusion around what it actually means. According to the Dictionary, it is “the process of integrating a new employee into an organization…” But how long should this last? A lot of organisations don’t seem to look past the first few days… but doesn’t getting integrated into a company take a lot longer than that? Onboarding should start from before you have even hired the person, and extend well into their first year. Oh, and there’s offboarding to think about too…
I’ve read many articles, gone through the onboarding process three times myself and spoken to numerous HR Directors about their onboarding strategies. As a recruiter, I have listened to many horror stories contributing to why candidates want to leave their role, many of which can be boiled down to a poor onboarding experience. These are some common reasons I hear every day for people wanting to leave:
- “The role is different to what I was sold.”
- “I was left to my own devices and given no support.”
- “It’s just not the right culture fit for me.”
The importance of onboarding
Research suggests that one-third of new hires quit their job after about six months. This is such a shame, and often down to a lack of support, or miscommunication. Most of this can be avoided by devising a simple and effective onboarding strategy – oh and actually implementing it and sticking to it.
There are all sorts of new HR trends being talked about every day, but too many HR professionals are caught up in what the next big thing is, rather than focusing on getting the basics right and adding value to their people and the organisation.
From my experience, a lot of companies have onboarding right at the bottom of the priority list, and most of the household names think their employer brand will make up for a poor onboarding experience.
Understand your workforce
First, evaluate your current onboarding programme and ask your employees what they think of your current offering. Ensure you understand your workforce and cater to their needs. What will work for one type of employee will not work for the other. You need to be able to provide tailored solutions, and find out what is important to your employees and what they value – not just what you’ve been told is “important in an onboarding process.” It might not be relevant.
Identify problems or any previous failures, and understand how addressing these problems will add value to the business and its employees. Define the profile of your new hires e.g. demographic, job types, what they value and are looking for, training needs etc. Ensure you know who is accountable for onboarding, who will fund it, and how it will blend with technology.
Think about cultural preferences and age e.g. Gen Y / Gen X; some people will like autonomy and some will prefer structure; you can cater to both. The sector you work in will also obviously determine your approach.
The onboarding journey – the basics
- Get in contact before they start. Send your new employee a welcome pack, maybe even a gift, or personalised message. Automate everything that can be completed before their start date and send it over e.g. contracts, logins, directions, benefits, what you should wear, what you should bring, staff profiles and company structure.
- Prepare everything for their arrival. Your new hire will be so excited to start – make sure this excitement is reciprocated. Nothing is more off-putting than feeling forgotten about.
- Announce their appointment. Include what they have come in to do and what you can expect of them. Make sure they feel valued and that they have a purpose
- “Socialisation.” This simply means getting them acquainted. Take them for lunch on their first day. Introduce them to people. Encourage them to attend events. The most important relationship will be the one with their manager, but ensure you assign them different peer groups and/or a “buddy.”
- Meaningful career conversation and skills assessment. Documents can be done anytime, so ensure you make time for a meaningful career planning conversation with the manager within the first few days. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, says that one of the most constructive parts of a new senior hire’s first week is a “no-holds-barred Q&A.” In this you can get to know each other better, assess their current skill-set and areas of strengths and development areas and plan accordingly. An interview is never enough to truly understand a role, or truly understand a candidate. Make sure there isn’t a disconnect between the recruitment process and reality on either side.
- Give them a plan. Cover the first two/three weeks in detail, and key milestones up to the first six or nine months.
- Communicate with them. Don’t assume your new hire is doing fine. Ask them for feedback, and make sure you feed back to them in return. Recognise their early successes, however small. Positivity breeds positivity…
- Follow up. If you are going to start an initiative with your new hire, then you must finish it. False promises will result in people losing respect for you very quickly.
Technology Vs People, HR Vs Management
There is a lot out there about automating onboarding. But technology should not entirely replace the people element, and similarly, HR should not entirely replace the managers when it comes to onboarding. Both should be working together and must be on the same page to ensure its effectiveness.
I have had experiences where most parts of the onboarding experience were automated. Whilst I appreciated being able to complete things at my own time on my phone – technology cannot replace the human touch. There was a clear gap between what my manager thought I should be doing and what HR and their various forms said I should be doing. HR and my manager were not on the same page. My manager thought HR was taking ownership of the process and the HR team assumed my manager would be more involved. Instead, my manager would tell me to skip things or tick things off because I had to. I ended up feeling like a number, not a valued employee!
You need to blend technology and face-to-face communication, and blend the role of HR and the manager to get the onboarding experience spot on. Think about how this will work in your organisation… Google’s “Just in Time option” perfectly demonstrates this: They have an automated checklist they send out to managers the night before a new hire starts. The onboarding is left entirely up to the managers, providing they perform five key tasks:
- A role and responsibilities discussion.
- Match new hire with peer buddy.
- Assist new hire to build a social network.
- Conduct onboarding check-ins once a month for the first six months.
- Encourage open dialogue.
Treat your employees as a customer
Most people have a checklist they want to tick off with their employees. You must keep their perception at the forefront of your mind and offer them an experience, not just an information overload. Most people when they think of onboarding think of an induction; being shown the office, their desk and told all about structure, policies, benefits, admin and systems. Not to mention all the endless amounts of paperwork they have to fill out. This can be phased over a period of time and should not be a priority.
Your new hire will want to know about their career, what the company’s expectations are and who the key people in the business are. They will be interested in the culture, the ways of working and the company values. Make sure you tell them a story and give them an experience. That is far more effective than overloading them with information they will likely forget and will learn on the job anyway. Onboarding should be a series of different activities, not a one-time event. Make training shorter, more frequent, interactive and informal. Incorporate coaching, feedback sessions, networking and social events into the programme. Be creative and keep engagement and employee experience at the forefront of your mind.
I don’t know about you, but having a social life at work is one of the most important parts of my job! Work friends are key to having a happy life. Make efforts to encourage your new hire to integrate in this way, and encourage the wider business to include them. I have had experiences where I started at a new company and was left completely to my own devices. Often at the end of the day, people would leave in their little groups to go out for a drink and wouldn’t think to invite me. It wasn’t that they were being rude, but they didn’t think anything of it.
Make sure you encourage people to make a special effort. Of course, it is somewhat down to the employee to put themselves out there, but first days can be awkward even for the most confident of people. Make it easy for them!
People who feel confident at work and have the right internal relationships, will be more productive and perform better. They will cross-sell more, work better in teams, have more honest (and valuable) communications and generally be happier and more engaged.
Communication is key
Give new hires a voice. Give them the opportunity to feed back on the onboarding process so you can continue to improve it. To help you build an effective onboarding programme off the back of feedback you can send out pulse surveys. That way all their insight will be in one place and you can pick out recurring themes and adjust your programme accordingly.
Make sure the surveys are short and simple and that you choose the most valuable and relevant questions for your workforce. This could include the recruitment process, salary, quality of information, leadership, training, quality of mentors, strategy, culture, socialisation and policies.
Communicate the importance of onboarding and ensure that leaders are bought-in and regularly communicating the importance. Communicate the values and standards of the business all the way through the selection process. Ensure that you encourage open, transparent and regular conversations. Have away days where people feel more comfortable being honest in an unbiased environment.
Food for thought – The Zappos way
If you haven’t read about Zappos onboarding process, you need to now. They perfectly illustrate how onboarding begins before the first day. They train their new hires before they even start; each person must complete a four-week training course in company values and customer service before starting officially in their role. At the end of the programme, the employees have a choice to either take the role they were employed to do, or take a substantial pay out and leave to find something else.
Yes, this process is no doubt expensive and time-consuming, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. This “weeds” out the unengaged and those that don’t align with their values, and ensures each person coming into the business knows exactly what to expect, and is excited to start and make a real contribution. Under-performing employees are very costly, so the return on investment is huge.
Getting onboarding right is key
There is no right or wrong approach to onboarding. What works for one set of people will turn another off completely. As HR and Business professionals, it’s our job to work together to create innovative, flexible systems that create a great employee experience and meet the needs of an ever-changing employment landscape.
Creating a structured programme is key. Above anything, it communicates to your new employees how happy you are that they’ve joined your business. Too often I hear of companies that sell hard when hiring, and then forget about the new employee once they’ve started! Most of the time, a new hire will have made a huge life decision to join your company and will want to feel that the decision to hire them was equally important. Within the first year of joining a business, your employee will essentially be judging whether the company is for them and whether they want to stay. You have a massive opportunity to impact that decision!
Onboarding increases retention, productivity and profit and reduces turnover. Ensure your process is continuous, flexible, regular, communicative and hands-on. Automation is important but don’t forget to have an actual conversation with your employees too!